Here’s the glaring omission in Australian Attorney-General George Brandis’ list of issues raised with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Jakarta this month: human rights.
Brandis touted their discussion on “counter-terrorism issues” and “information sharing between our law enforcement and intelligence agencies”. Human rights either wasn’t on the agenda or didn’t rate mention in Brandis’ trip report.
That omission was more than just a failure by Australia’s top judicial official to voice Australia’s support for universal rights and freedoms. It is a betrayal of Indonesian human rights victims in dire need of international support.
Australia has a solid record of protecting civil and political rights at home, with robust institutions and a vibrant press and civil society that act as a check on government power. However, the government’s failure to respect international standards for asylum seekers and refugees continues to take a heavy human toll.
Australia has also adopted extensive and overly broad counter-terrorism laws in response to the threat of “homegrown terrorism”, and has done too little to address Indigenous rights and disability rights.
Brandis' blind eye to human rights while in Indonesia is an unfortunate reflection of the Australian government’s tendency to rarely raise concerns publicly about human rights violations in countries with which it co-operates on border protection matters or has significant trade relationships.
A visit to Papua
Brandis didn’t lack an opportunity to raise human rights concerns. His visit began in Indonesia’s restive province of Papua, where impunity for human rights abuses is routine.
In the past five years, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which Indonesian security forces have used unnecessary or excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and association. Authorities frequently arrest and prosecute Papuan protesters peacefully advocating independence or other political change.
A total of 37 Papuan activists are in prison on charges of treason for “crimes” including public display of the Papuan Morning Star flag, a symbol of the independence movement.
Indonesian authorities also continue to restrict access by foreign journalists and rights monitors to Papua. This raises serious concerns about the government’s commitment to media freedom.
Brandis’ Papua trip report references visits to “border facilities and a traditional market” and reiterates Australia’s recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over Papua, but makes zero mention of human rights.
Guest of a controversial host
Brandis may have been reticent to raise human rights issues due to his status as “the guest” of the co-ordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Wiranto. The former general is Indonesia’s poster child for impunity for grave abuses.
Wiranto was chief of Indonesia’s armed forces in 1999 when the Indonesian army and military-backed militias carried out atrocities against the East Timorese after they voted for independence.
In February 2003, the United-Nations-sponsored Special Panels for Serious Crimes of the Dili District Court indicted him for crimes against humanity. The charges are so serious that in 2004 the US placed Wiranto and five others accused of crimes in East Timor on a visa watch list that could bar them from entering the country.
Brandis’ decision to engage with Wiranto as a credible representative of the Indonesian government rather than as a war crimes suspect makes his failure to raise rights issues even more reprehensible.
Brandis also failed to raise the issue of the Indonesian government’s commitment to an official accountability process for past gross human rights abuses. These include the government-orchestrated massacres of 1965-66 that resulted in up to one million deaths.
Jokowi had assigned Wiranto’s predecessor, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, to oversee that process. Jokowi’s move last month to replace Pandjaitan with Wiranto, for whom accountability for rights abuses constitutes an existential threat, raises doubts about the future of the accountability process.
Speak out against impunity
Brandis should have pressed Jokowi on the need for redress for past rights abuses as a means of justice for victims and their survivors, as well as to challenge the culture of impunity spawned by the lack of official accountability for those abuses.
Brandis should also have lent his voice in support of the rights of Indonesia’s increasingly beleaguered LGBT community, which has come under unprecedented attack in recent months from a government-led campaign.
That campaign has included a torrent of abuse and hateful rhetoric, discriminatory edicts and the police use of unnecessary force against peaceful protesters.
The day before Brandis’ August 12 meeting with Jokowi, the president’s spokesman, Johan Budi, responded to a Human Rights Watch report on these abuses by saying there was “no room” for LGBT rights activism in Indonesia.
There is no indication Brandis took exception to that unacceptable comment – or even raised the issue of LGBT rights with Jokowi.
Australian campaigners against Indonesia’s use of the death penalty might have been struck by Brandis’ silence on that issue. His visit was just three weeks after Indonesia executed four convicted drug traffickers, the first group of 30 death penalty prisoners who face execution in 2016.
That silence was particularly incongruous given the vociferous Australian government opposition to Indonesia’s execution of two Australian nationals in April 2015.
Brandis should have raised Australia’s opposition to the death penalty as part of a policy of consistent public and private diplomatic pressure to end this cruel practice, showing how the death penalty has failed to deter crime and been unjustly applied. There is no indication he did so.
Brandis squandered a valuable opportunity to engage meaningfully with the Indonesian government on key human rights issues. It’s up to those Australian officials who make official visits to Indonesia in future to ensure his failure is not repeated.
Authors: Phelim Kine, Adjunct Professor, Roosevelt Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, City University of New York